- Constanze Baumgart
Tolstoy in German, Goethe in Russian – the Isaak Olschanski Library
The holdings of Cologne’s Jewish Community Library amount today to some 16,000 volumes, largely in Russian but also with a considerable German section and other works in English or Hebrew. The linguistic emphasis alone tells something of the recent history of German Jewry, bound up as it is with that of the library’s founding in the 1990s by Isaak Olschanski and his companions.
It was a decade that saw fundamental changes in the structure of Germany’s Jewish communities. After the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989/1990, some 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews left the former Soviet Union for Germany. The German Jewish communities made great efforts to support the newcomers. In Cologne an established Jewish community of around 1000 people welcomed 4000 Jewish immigrants from every corner of the old Soviet Union.
A library founded by a married couple
The newcomers were often people of profound culture; indeed they were soon known as “the cultured Jews.” The engineer Isaak Olschanski and his wife, Prof. Greta Ionkis (lately published by Greta Ionkis: "Juden und Deutsche"), belonged to this group; they joined Cologne Synagogue in 1994. Olschanski wanted to repay the community in some way for what they had done for him and his wife, and as a bibliophile and spouse of a literary scholar the answer was not hard to find: With his wife he started a library for the community – a facility that had not existed until then.
Isaak Olschanski at his desk in the library (© private)
Isaak Olschanski wanted to establish a social center – a meeting place where the Russian-speaking members of the community would also have access to books in their mother tongue. Hence a major focus of the Jewish Community Library of Cologne is Russian literature – from the great classics to contemporary works, including popular and children’s literature. Another concern of the Olschanskis was to acquaint their readers with German writing, which accounts for the library’s extensive holdings of German literature in Russian. For the library’s German-speaking readers, translations of Russian literature form a third major focus. Following in Olschanski and Ionkis’s footsteps, the current full-time librarian, Isabella Khoussid, sees it as one of her main tasks “to familiarize the German-speaking members of the community with Russian writing.” Accordingly, the shelves are lined with Russian classics in German translation.
Thomas Mann, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (© private)
Judaica: learning about one’s roots
Jews in the former Soviet Union did not as a rule have a living relationship with their religion. The word “Jew” written in the passport was merely a concept of nationality. Moreover, antisemitism, whether open or covert, was a daily affair. So however conscious they were about being Jews, the new members of the Cologne community generally knew little about their religion, their traditions, or the history of Judaism. To close this gap the library has a small Judaica section containing works on Jewish religion and traditions, supplemented by a section on Jewish and Israeli history and on the Holocaust. Special topics like Jewish mysticism and life in the diaspora, as well as a wide selection of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, and various dictionaries and reference works, complete the holdings.
The Jewish Encyclopedia. Judaism and Jewish Culture Past and Present. (Ed. Dr. L. Katzenelskaya and Baron D.G Ginzburg. Gesellschaft für Jüdische Wissenschaftliche Publikationen and Brockhaus-Efron Verlag St. Petersburg) (© private)
Crime fiction against Corona
At the height of the COVID19 pandemic a lending library service was organized. Readers could order books by telephone and they would be deposited for collection at the door of the community center. Isabella Khoussid tells how the Corona virus left its mark on the community’s reading habits. She would often be asked “Do you have any light reading material for me?”
We are not a lending library. We are an information center
and meeting place. Isabella Khoussid, Head Librarian, Isaak Olschanski Library
Launched as a micro-project, above all on the basis of spontaneously gifted books, the Isaak Olschanski Library is today professionally organized with a permanent librarian and a small ongoing allowance within Cologne’s Jewish community budget. Greta Ionkis remains a member of the library team and the holdings continue to grow, with Isabella Khoussid and her honorary assistants acquiring 20–30 new books every month.
Isaak Olschanski’s grave in Cologne’s West Cemetery (© private)
Isaak Olschanski was awarded the Federal Order of Merit in 2017 for his honorary work. Since 2020 the Jewish Community Library has borne his name.
The journalist Dr. Constanze Baumgart is editor of this blog
© Title image: Torah commentaries (© private)